Religious right

Sorry, but Politico's long exposé on Jerry Falwell Jr. lacks adequate named sources to be taken seriously

Sorry, but Politico's long exposé on Jerry Falwell Jr. lacks adequate named sources to be taken seriously

Undoubtedly, many critics of Jerry Falwell Jr. will love Politico’s long takedown of the controversial Liberty University president.

On Twitter, Jonathan Merritt, for example, called the piece published today a “blistering investigative report” for which the author should win an award.

“It's impossible to pick just one thing to highlight in this … cascade of scoops,” said Ruth Graham.

I’m no Falwell fan myself, and I’d be inclined to agree with the tweets above, except for one major, glaring concern: The writer relies almost entirely on anonymous sources.

“‘Someone’s Gotta Tell the Freakin’ Truth’,” screams Politico’s headline. “Jerry Falwell’s Aides Break Their Silence.”

But they don’t really break their silence — in terms of going on the record and criticizing Falwell.

Politico sets the scene like this:

At Liberty University, all anyone can talk about is Jerry Falwell Jr. Just not in public.

“When he does stupid stuff, people will mention it to others they consider confidants and not keep it totally secret,” a trusted adviser to Falwell, the school’s president and chancellor, told me. “But they won’t rat him out.”

That’s beginning to change.

Over the past year, Falwell, a prominent evangelical leader and supporter of President Donald Trump, has come under increasing scrutiny. News outlets have reported on business deals by Liberty University benefiting Falwell’s friends. Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen claimed that he had helped Falwell clean up racy “personal” photographs.

Based on scores of new interviews and documents obtained for this article, concerns about Falwell’s behavior go well beyond that—and it’s causing longtime, loyal Liberty University officials to rapidly lose faith in him.

More than two dozen current and former high-ranking Liberty University officials and close associates of Falwell spoke to me or provided documents for this article, opening up—for the first time at an institution so intimately associated with the Falwell family—about what they’ve experienced and why they don’t think he’s the right man to lead Liberty University or serve as a figurehead in the Christian conservative movement.

That’s a lot of sources, yes. But they’d have much more credibility if they had names attached to them. On-the-record sources with names attached have more skin in the game than those granted carte blanche to say whatever they want without their names attached. That’s basic Journalism 101 reality.

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That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

It’s really hard for the mainstream press to consider someone crazy and wise at the same time. Then again, the Rev. Pat Robertson is not your normal public figure, is he?

This aging patriarch of the old Religious Right frequently provides one-liners that shoot straight into the headlines, as well as the monologues of late-night political humorists. He is gifted at that, and journalists have long welcomed opportunities to quote him as a defining voice in conservative American Christianity, even as his clout has declined and evangelicalism has become much more complex.

So now we have headlines about Robertson opposing an abortion law. Is that crazy, or what?

It’s a laugh to keep from crying equation. For more background on that, see this piece — “Excommunicating Pat Robertson” — that I wrote long ago for the ethics team at

I’m not a Robertson fan, obviously. However, I do think that journalists may — from time to time — want to note one or two interesting facts in his background, other than pinning the “televangelist” label on him and then moving on. (Anyway, he’s more of a “religious broadcaster,” as opposed to being an “evangelist” in the traditional meaning of that word.)

We will come back to that topic — overlooked facts in the Robertson biography — in a moment. First things first: Why is he back in the news?

Well, there is this USA Today headline to consider, among many: “Televangelist Pat Robertson: Alabama abortion law 'has gone too far,' is 'ill-considered'.” Here’s the top of that report:

Longtime televangelist Pat Robertson, who opposes abortion, criticized Alabama's near-total abortion ban that on Wednesday became the nation's most restrictive and one expected to face legal challenge.

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

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2020 and the religious right: 'If Trump loses evangelical support, you can stick a fork in him'

2020 and the religious right: 'If Trump loses evangelical support, you can stick a fork in him'

Frank Lockwood is not your ordinary Washington, D.C., correspondent.

His career trajectory has featured a mix of political reporting and stints as religion editor for the Lexington Herald-Leader and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

At one point, he was known — as GetReligion’s archives attest — as the “Bible Belt Blogger.”

So when my Google News Alert for mentions of “evangelicals” turned up a Lockwood piece on President Donald Trump’s cozy relationship with evangelical leaders, I wasn’t surprised to find an insightful piece.

Lockwood, who has reported for the Democrat-Gazette from the nation’s capital since 2015, gets politics and religion. And he works for a newspaper that still strives hard to report stories such as this in an impartial, balanced manner — as in, no snark concerning Trump and the religious voters who make up such a crucial part of his base.

The Democrat-Gazette’s lede:

Evangelicals, who were crucial to President Donald Trump's election, are pleased thus far with their White House ally, prominent leaders say.

The New York Republican is counting on his Christian conservative base to help him win a second term.

"I love the evangelicals. And they love me," Trump said in February, repeating a line he had also employed during the 2016 campaign.

The strength of that relationship will matter on Election Day 2020, pollsters say.

Without a fired-up white evangelical voting base, Trump's possible pathways to a second term narrow considerably, according to pollster Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute.

"They're a quarter of all voters and they vote 80 percent Republican, so it's a very important constituency on the Republican side of politics," said Jones, the author of The End of White Christian America.

Why report this story now?

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Don't give us those old time religions: New York Times asks what it means to be a Democrat

Don't give us those old time religions: New York Times asks what it means to be a Democrat

Hey, news consumers: Does anyone remember that "Nones on the Rise" study from the Pew Research Center?

Of course you do. It was in all the newspapers, over and over. It even soaked into network and cable television news -- where stories about religion is rare.

The big news, of course, was the rapid rise in "Nones" -- the "religiously unaffiliated" -- in the American population, especially among the young. Does this sound familiar? One-fifth of all Americans -- a third of those under 30 -- are "Nones," to one degree or another.

Traditional forms of religious faith were holding their own, while lots of vaguely religious people in the mushy middle were being more candid about their lack of ties to organized religion. More than 70 percent of "Nones" called themselves "nothing in particular," as opposed to being either atheists or agnostics.

When the study came out, a key researcher -- John C. Green of the University of Akron -- said it was crucial to note the issues that united these semi-believers, as well as atheists, agnostics and faithful religious liberals, into a growing voter block on the cultural left. My "On Religion" column ended with this:

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters. ... The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.
"It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green. ... "If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties."

These sharp divisions are also being seen INSIDE the major political parties. If you want to see that process at work, check out the fascinating New York Times report that ran the other day under this headline: "As Primaries Begin, Divided Voters Weigh What It Means to Be a Democrat." It isn't hard to spot the religion "ghost" in this blunt overture:

PALOS HILLS, Ill. -- When Representative Daniel Lipinski, a conservative-leaning Democrat and scion of Chicago’s political machine, agreed to one joint appearance last month with his liberal primary challenger, the divide in the Democratic Party was evident in the audience that showed up.

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Hey, Washington Post political scribes: So religion will have zero impact in GOP civil war?

Hey, Washington Post political scribes: So religion will have zero impact in GOP civil war?

Throughout this depressing White House campaign, Washington Post coverage has been split in a really interesting way when dealing with religion and American politics. This trend continued in a new piece that ran with this headline: "As Trump delivers his Gettysburg address, Republicans prepare for a civil war."

As has been the norm among elite news media, the Post has run its share of breathless "Evangelicals love Donald Trump!" reports.

That's fine. Strong support for Trump among a significant minority of white evangelicals has been a major trend, along with the fact that many others in that camp have reluctantly concluded (Christianity Today report here) that they have to vote for the Donald in order to accomplish their primary goal -- defeating Hillary Clinton, the candidate of the moral and cultural left.

However, when dealing with the politics of the White House race, the Post political desk has basically ignored the role of religious faith in both political parties and among the surprisingly large number of #NeverTrump #NeverHillary voters who have frantically been seeking third-party options. This "horse race" coverage has been amazingly religion free.

With that in mind, let's look at a key early chunk of the Post Gettysburg story:

It was ironic that Trump chose Gettysburg, the site of one of the most decisive battles of the Civil War, for his speech. Win or lose, Republicans are probably headed toward a civil war of their own, a period of conflict and turmoil and a reckoning of potentially historic significance. That debate has already begun, as the tension between Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan has shown throughout the year. It will only intensify after Nov. 8. ...
The Republican presidential nominee has not only failed to unify the GOP; but his candidacy has also intensified long-standing hostility toward the party establishment among the grass-roots forces backing him. That tension has made it harder to find a solution to a major problem: The Republican coalition now represents growing shares of the declining parts of the electorate -- the inverse of what an aspiring majority party should want.

Note the "grass-roots" reference.

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Hey Washington Post editors: Why is Donald Trump in trouble in Utah? Think about it

Hey Washington Post editors: Why is Donald Trump in trouble in Utah? Think about it

For many elite journalists, it has been the big, nagging existential question for more than a year: Who is to blame for the rise of Donald Trump?

For starters, his popularity must have something to do with a revolt among blue-collar and Middle Class white Americans. The press seems to get that, in part because this trend can also be linked to some of the supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

But from the get go, journalists have been fascinated by the fact that some religious conservatives have -- no matter how outrageous the past actions of the proud playboy called The Donald -- been willing to forgive Trump's many sins against faith and family.

In other words, when in doubt, blame all those yahoos on the Religious Right.

The problem, of course, was the evidence that the more religious conservatives, you know, spent time in pews and pulpits the less likely they were to support Trump, especially with any sense of enthusiasm. The split between "cultural evangelicals" and the leadership class in their churches kept showing up in the exit polls. And what about Catholics? And Mormons? Is there a reason that someone like Mitt Romney is the face of the #NeverTrump world?

The bottom line: How can journalists cover the "lesser of two evils" story that dominates this year's White House race without weighing the moral and religious issues linked to that dilemma? What kinds of voters are in the most pain, right now, as they contemplate a choice between Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton?

This brings me to two items from The Washington Post that I am convinced are linked. It appears that the political editors at the Post don't see it that way.

Let's start with this headline at the reported blog called The Fix: "This new Utah poll is amazingly bad for Donald Trump." At the heart of the story is a truly shocking set of numbers, if you know anything about GOP life.

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Washington Post visits the enemy's camp: Oh those wild, dangerous Ben Carson voters

Washington Post visits the enemy's camp: Oh those wild, dangerous Ben Carson voters

If you read journals of political news and opinion, then you are very familiar with a feature-story format that I like to call "visiting the house (or camp) of the enemy." What kind of advocacy publication are we talking about? Let's say the old New Republic or Rolling Stone, on the left, or The Weekly Standard or National Review on the right.

In this story, a reporter -- acting like a National Geographic staffer -- visits a strange and exotic type of person and tries to describe them and their tribe in their natural habitat, talking about their strange and maybe scary customs and beliefs.

A key element of this format is that they rarely include the voices of people on the other side of controversial issues that are discussed. The members of the exotic tribe talk and talk and talk and there is never really a response.

Why is this? Because the reporter is the representative of the opposing side and everything the members of the enemy tribe say is being filtered through the worldview of their opponents, framed in ways that make the words extra threatening or ridiculous. You are reading the Rolling Stone version of a gathering of pro-life activists or The Weekly Standard version of a gathering of postmodern gender-studies scholars.

Let me stress that I know this format well because I read, and appreciate, these kinds of publications. When you read In These Times you are reading a liberal point of view that is so strong that it often makes the left uncomfortable. Ditto for World magazine on the right. I appreciate this kind of journalism.

The question for today is this: What is this format doing in The Washington Post?

With these issues in mind, let's look at a few passages from a classic "visiting the house of the enemy" feature that ran under the headline: "Fear, faith and the rise of Ben Carson." Let's start with the lede, which takes a member of the Post national enterprise team deep into the wilds of the Bible Belt:

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One thing seems clear: When it comes to religion, America is getting less 'mushy'

One thing seems clear: When it comes to religion, America is getting less 'mushy'

When it comes to the fine print in polling about politics and religion, journalists are always looking for sources who have the ability to connect the dots and then explain the connections in language that can be understood by news consumers (and news editors, too).

Oh, right. It also helps when they have a good track record when it comes to being right.

So with that in mind, let's take a trip back in time with John C. Green of the University of Akron, a major player in years of Pew Forum polling. This trip is linked to the second wave of Pew Forum data linked to the "nones," a blast of numbers that is getting lots of news attention this week. Earlier today, our own Richard Ostling offered a memo on this topic.

The year was 2008 and Green paid a visit to my Washington Journalism Center classroom to brief a circle of international journalists on some trends in American religion and, yes, politics. What ended up on our whiteboard that day?

On the right side of the American religious marketplace, defined in terms of doctrine and practice, is a camp of roughly 20 percent (maybe less) of believers who are seriously trying to practice their chosen faith at the level of daily life, said Green. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is a growing camp of people who are atheists, agnostics or vaguely spiritual believers who define their beliefs primarily in terms of the old doctrines that they no longer believe. This is especially true when it comes to issues of salvation and sex. As the old saying goes, on these issues these spiritual-but-not-religious believers reject all absolute truths except the statement that there are no absolute truths.
In recent national elections this growing camp of secularists and religiously unaffiliated people have formed a powerful coalition with Catholic liberals, liberal Jews and the declining numbers of people found in America's liberal religious denominations (such as the "seven sisters" of oldline Protestantism). Add it all up ... and you had a growing camp of roughly 20 percent or so on the cultural left.
The bottom line: This coalition was emerging as the dominant voice in the modern Democratic Party on matters of culture and religion.

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One more time: So many ways in which polls can be appalling as well as appealing

One more time: So many ways in which polls can be appalling as well as appealing

Is the Religion Guy the only American who’s already sick of the constant news reports on political polls, and yet can’t help following them because this  may be the most aberrant campaign since 1860?

Polls can be interesting but also problematic, as discussed in the  Sept. 8 Memo “Are polls about people and pews appealing or appalling? Warnings for journalists.” That item scanned complaints from Princeton’s Robert Wuthnow, one of the leading U.S. sociologists of religion, in a new book:  “Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith” (Oxford University Press, published October 1).

Wuthnow asserts that polling in general is increasingly slippery, largely because response rates are so low that it’s impossible to know whether results are representative. He also thinks religion is an especially tricky field for opinion surveying and that media reports about results can distort public perceptions.

 Following up, the sort of material reporters can pursue is seen in an interview with Wuthnow by Andrew Aghapour, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for (This online magazine is well worth monitoring if you’re not familiar with it. Editor Diane Winston, Ph.D., associate professor at U.S.C.’s Annenberg School, was a well-regarded Godbeat toiler in Raleigh, Baltimore, and Dallas.)

Wuthnow cites Jimmy Carter’s presidential win in 1976, which media dubbed the “year of the evangelical.” Actually it was the year some media suddenly discovered evangelicalism. 

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